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Supper Club State

A Brief Cultural History of a Wisconsin Institution

Back in the early 1970s, a restaurant called Holcomb's Supper Club stood on the banks of the St. Croix River. From my youthful perspective, it seemed a glamorous, exotic place: the starlight chandeliers dangled over garnet-red carpet, barrel-backed chairs circled tables draped with crisp linen, and a grand piano bisected the smoky lounge and dining room, where large windows framed an outdoor terrace complete with waterfall and Japanese-inspired koi pond.

I remember with relish the arrival of the relish tray, brimming with fancy-cut raw veggies, cherry peppers, pickled herring, assorted crackers, and bright-orange cheese spread. But that was just the first course. Next came an iceberg lettuce salad with homemade salad dressing—three choices!—that came in a self-serve, stainless steel triumvirate, arriving well before platters of prime rib, eight-ounce tenderloin, or beer-battered cod were delivered with a flourish and a smile by a waitress who was efficient, friendly and wearing sensible shoes.

You had to dress up to go to Holcomb's, and, if I behaved, I was allowed a Shirley Temple—a nonalcoholic "cocktail" of grenadine and ginger ale, garnished with a maraschino cherry and orange slice impaled on little green plastic sword. The cocktail sword was good for several minutes of quiet play with my sister at the table. Sometimes I was even allowed to sample Mom's after-dinner standby, the Golden Cadillac.

Holcomb's was among a dozen or so supper clubs around the St. Croix Valley that attracted Wisconsinites and Minnesotans alike—friends and neighbors seeking food, family, and relaxation. Aside from the Holcomb's hearty fare, what I most remember is the feeling of family that was fostered there. The supper club was a site for stories, too. During dinner my grandparents might recall when they both worked at George and Gladys Holcomb's original restaurant, the Buckhorn, in the 1930s and 1940s. Back then the Buckhorn announced its gaming, big bands and surf-and-turf specials with huge, Hollywood-style letters that protruded from the Wisconsin bluff, signaling to Minnesotans (even today the state has a blue law that prohibits Sunday off-sale liquor) all the fun to be had on this side of the St. Croix.

In most parts of the state, the Wisconsin supper club has attained an almost mythical status; it is undeniably part of our vernacular. Supper clubs are also part of our state's collective culture and history. While thousands likely existed during the automobile heyday from pre-World War II through the 1970s, the Waukesha-based website foodspot.com currently lists some 450 independent Wisconsin restaurants that use the phrase "supper club" in their names, many of which have been around for decades. And surely hundreds more that don't explicitly use the term have kept the old-school supper club vibe alive with strong cocktails, classic American fare and some form of family entertainment.

Like most of the supper clubs that once habited the St. Croix Valley, the Buckhorn and Holcomb's are now gone (death by fire, on both counts). But the supper club tradition remains strong in this part of the state and stretches across the rest Wisconsin even today, despite predictions of its demise due to changing liquor and smoking laws, shifting dining customs and other challenges to independent ownership that stem from the proliferation of fast food and chain restaurants.

Whether because of familial obligation, an interest in making an honest living or a yearning to reconnect with the past, people around Wisconsin work hard every day to keep the supper club tradition alive.

 

The Country Cousin

Dennis R. Getto, the late, long-time food critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, once tried to craft a working definition of the supper club for his readers: "A precise definition still eludes me, even after a couple thousand miles and about fifty dinners' worth of research," he wrote, adding, "but I can offer generalizations."

Getto called the supper club a "country cousin" to the urban nightclub, with the main difference being that they easily outlasted their fickle, city counterparts. Frequently located along highways or in resort areas, supper clubs have a relaxed mood that makes them a destination for "an entire evening, rather than as a prelude to other entertainment," wrote Getto.

Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) captured in verse the mood of her hometown supper club. Entitled "Club 26," Niedecker's paean is elegant, echoing the notion that a trip to the supper club can be an all-night affair:

Our talk, our books
riled the shore like bullheads
at the roots of the luscious
large water lily
Then we entered the lily
built white on a red carpet
the circular quiet
cool bar
glass stems to caress

We stayed till the stamens trembled

Located on Highway 26 in Fort Atkinson, Club 26 remains a culinary—and literary—destination even today.

The Wisconsin Historical Society attributes the advent of the supper club to a native son, but not in native soil. Lawrence Frank, from Milwaukee, established the first supper club in Beverly Hills, California in the 1920s. His simple menu included prime rib, potatoes, cooked vegetables and Yorkshire pudding, an English dish made from flour, milk and eggs. (Frank was also credited with the concept of a "doggie bag" for take-away morsels from a large meal.)

While perhaps invented in California, in different parts of America, however, the phrase supper club takes on other meanings. Like a book club, contemporary foodies often gather informally to share culinary skills in a "supper club," held in a home kitchen. Of late the term has been used by many a chef-of-the-moment as indicative of a prix-fixe, invitation-only sampling of a new menu at an exclusive or impromptu location.

In other areas, the term has more to do with alcohol than the food. Located in Alabama, a state with 14 dry and 12 moist counties, the War Eagle Supper Club offers "cold beer and hot rock," but meager fare to patrons. A lifetime membership costs $200, and an infamous "slush bus" offers rides home to members who become "too happy."

Some states and municipalities offer a restricted liquor licensure called a supper club license, and it's likely the term stems from the first issue of post-Prohibition liquor licenses. Under this license, more than half of an establishment's sales must come from food, unlike a tavern license, where revenue is primarily from alcoholic beverages. In Wisconsin, a Class B liquor license allows the consumption on premises in a restaurant or a tavern.

Surfing the Wisconsin supper club forum on roadfood.com, an online offshoot of a book of the same name by veteran eaters and authors Jane and Michael Stern, I came across a post by Ohioan Michael Hoffman. "I have to tell you folks, where I come from a supper club is a night club—booze, dancing, fancy women, that sort of thing," wrote Hoffman, noting that "one wouldn't take a chance and actually eat in a supper club."

When it comes to supper clubs, Ohio might have more in common with Europe than Wisconsin. Supperclub, started in Amsterdam in 1999, is an international nightclub chain that offers an aura of exclusivity to its clientele. Billed as a "free state of sensual experiences," supperclub is known for dining á la bedside and live theatrical performances between courses (wryly dubbed, "intercourse"). On its website, hovering next to a semi-nude man lying on what seems to be a crucifix made of white pillows, is the following warning: "If you're looking for an unusual dinner experience in an unexpected place and are not afraid to discover the creative corners of your personality, then knock on supperclub's door."

While the term supper club may forever remain idiomatic to most non-natives, (much like bubbler or pop), I think it is sufficient to say that a supper club is an independent restaurant that serves traditional American fare, with an attached tavern, bar or lounge, and a specific space for hosting entertainment. Most Wisconsinites just know a supper club when they see it. An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal some years ago declared that "a real Wisconsin supper club has certain attributes, and, while they aren't written down anywhere, we know them the way we know the lyrics to 'On, Wisconsin.'"

Integral to the recipe, along with the standard American fare menu, is a "dark, soothing interior" and a picturesque view of a lake, river or forest. The editorial sums up the quixotic nature of our relationship with supper clubs by boldly declaring that "we native Wisconsinites are just born with a deep understanding of the meaning of supper club."

 

Built White on a Red Carpet

Let's say, for argument's sake, that, as Wisconsinites, "a deep understanding" of supper clubs really does flow through our veins. Could you describe what one looks like? What are the hallmarks of a true Wisconsin supper club?

For the unindoctrinated, there are a few tell-tale signs that you might be approaching a supper club: Is the building style colonial ("ye olde") English or antebellum plantation? Is there a playful theme involved—Western, space-age, nautical—but no mini-golf or waterslide in the vicinity? Is the restaurant outfitted with faux cultural or wildly exotic themes? Is it covered in excessive ornamentation or built to resemble a log cabin? If it serves a trifecta of food, drink and entertainment, you might have found yourself a supper club.

"Programmatic architecture is a design that signals what its use is, related to a theme," says Jim Draeger, deputy state historic preservation officer with the Wisconsin Historical Society. "The intent behind a programmatic building is to use the architecture to draw people's attention and make them stop. Eye-catching, arresting architectural designs ... give a sense of the exotic or adventure or something that is rooted in place. The other big theme is 'home-away-from-home,' as I would call it, [which] draws off the designs of the ranch house, southern plantation, or other residential architecture with the intent of making it look like a warm, welcoming, family place."

Like male birds of paradise, the more garish supper clubs may have a built-in advantage for survival. Turk's Inn (established in 1934), near Hayward, is a charming, mosque-like structure that stands out amongst the ubiquitous white arrows that point the way to the nearest resort or attraction along Highway 63. Inside, monster steaks and kabobs are aged and hand-cut by the founder's daughter and owner, Beatrice "Marge" Gogian, who in the 1950s had a New York modeling career before returning home to help run her parents' supper club. Diners enjoy their meals while examining an emporium of global curiosities arranged in lighted display cases throughout the supper club. Pyramid of the Nile Supper Club, which opened in 1961 near Beaver Dam in Dodge County, is described by current owners Raymond and Denise Olson as a "forty-foot pyramid in the middle of a cornfield." Pyramid of the Nile Pyramid of the Nile Supper Clubserves supper club fare "fit for a Pharoah and His Queen," along with homemade "manna" in a breadbasket.

Exterior of the Turks Inn. Photo by Brenda K. BredahlExterior of the Pyramid of the Nile Supper Club. Photo by Jim Draeger, Wisconsin Historical Society

But gimmcky name or eye-catching exterior doesn't always guarantee business, and some now-defunct supper clubs have forced to convert to other kinds of facilities. Marty's Showboat Supper Club, completed in 1947, was crafted in the spirit of a riverboat with a round bow, second-story deck and porthole windows. The building, located near Three Lakes, now serves as the Big Stone Lake Golf Course clubhouse.

One of the most extraordinary examples of supper club architecture in Wisconsin has attained an almost cult-like status. Websites are devoted to its memory—although it is still standing and for sale—and you can find multiple YouTube videos that show its original, animated commercial (complete with theme song).

Helmut Ajango, a Prairie-Style architect, oversaw construction of the fascinating and fantastic Gobbler Supper Club and Motel in Johnson Creek. The low-slung, mid-century modern building with sweeping archways and domed roof was built for Clarence Hartwig, a turkey-industry tycoon, between 1966 and 1967. Hartwig wanted out of the turkey business and requested that Ajango build him a striking restaurant and motel in honor of his former profession.

Panoramic view of the Gobbler's unique exterior. Photo by Stanley GreyInterior of the GobblerThe legendary supper club remains, but the motel was burned (because of structural wood rot) as a fire department training exercise in 2001. "No one would built a building like that today; it would cost far too much," says current Gobbler co-owner Marv Havill. Havill purchased the rotund supper club in 1995 with partners Daryl Spoerl and Raymond Krek, but the trio quickly recognized that their venture into the supper club business required much more time than they could devote. Consequently, they shuttered the business in 2002 and put the property up for sale.

"It was a good business in the beginning, but unfortunately it didn't work out. The unfortunate part is that the three of us were not restaurateurs. When you are absentee owners, things don't work out well," cautions Havill. "Supper clubs have survived because of the people who invest hard work and dedication. I always say it gets down to taking care of business, and not taking 'care' for granted. Caring is what makes a supper club survive."

While Havill and his partners invested $500,000 in updates, they kept most of the Gobbler intact. Twenty-inch-thick concrete walls are covered with Mexican lava stone and petrified wood, and the Gobbler's audacious interior sparkles with quartz crystals. It has a rotating bar—trucked in from Chicago's famed Waldorf Astoria—and a 175-seat banquet hall with stage and meeting rooms (and two additional rotating waiting areas). The ambiance from the architecture and design is definitely part of its mystique.

"I would love to see it brought back [as] a supper club," says Havill, noting that there have been numerous offers to convert the facility to a gentlemen's club (the village of Johnson Creek has denied the necessary permits for the conversion). "To make it work [as a supper club] would require that an individual ... be highly involved and run the business with imagination and vision. Because of the location and uniqueness of the building, it would be a shame to see that architecture go away."

Local realtor Stanley Grey says the Gobbler, currently listed for a cool $2.3 million, has a tremendous reputation, and several historical groups, including the Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin Heritage Tourism Program, have rented the facility for events, tours and lectures. "It's a fantastic piece of art, [and] not just a restaurant," says Grey. "But we'd like to see more restaurant people interested in it."

 

Of Repasts Past

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the development of the federal and state highway systems, the rise of recreational auto travel, and the state's burgeoning tourism industry all had an impact on the growth of the supper club.

"I think the reason you see so many supper clubs in Wisconsin is that, historically, we have a lot of recreation and tourism," says Draeger. "The supper club is a profiteer related to that tourism. People want to get away, and a big part of the trip is the adventure. It's partly a love of the car, too, and part of the experience is a nice drive out into the countryside. You'd take a Sunday drive and end up at the supper club."

In their heyday, most clubs were located in resort areas, near lakes and rivers and almost always sported a view of Wisconsin's ample woodlands. If a supper club couldn't be set in nature, then carefully landscaped gardens and terraces, manmade waterfalls and fish ponds, and carved wood or natural stonework recreated nature both in town and on the outskirts. Real and invented nature juxtaposed with elaborate facades, and flashing signs amongst the trees attracted roadside attention.

A large fiberglass bull welcomes visitors to the Silvercryst supper club

Willis Miller, the late historian and publisher emeritus of the Hudson Star Observer, once said to me on our way to a supper club, "Well, really, Brenda, if you have good food and serve it in a tent, people will come." A lifelong resident of the St. Croix Valley who passed away in 2008, Miller frequented the valley's supper clubs and regaled me with tales of wining and dining with journalist Charles Kuralt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (the unconventional daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt), and Charles A. Ward, an ex-Leavenworth inmate who became president of the St. Paul-based calendar giant Brown and Bigelow.

Miller was right: the best supper clubs still insist on homemade, housemade everything. Meat is king, and most house-age and hand-cut their steaks. Special signature entrées include a 160 oz. (!) prime rib, like the ones available at the Black Otter Supper Club in Hortonville, or frog legs, a French-inspired item still found on many old-school menus like the one at Bob Smith's Sports Club in Hudson. Once harvested wild in the St. Croix Valley, these delicacies appeared on restaurant menus from Minneapolis to Chicago, which often boasted of Wisconsin frog legs. Although much of the fish found on supper club menus today is no longer locally caught, the Friday fish fry can have a Wisconsin coastal take, too, stemming from history, tradition and ethnic preference: fish boils, whitefish, blue gill or walleye to the north, catfish or cod to the west and lake perch or haddock to the east.

A relish tray, once ubiquitous and complimentary, rounded out the recipe with crinkle-cut carrots, radish roses, celery hearts, crackers and breadsticks, pickled peppers or beets, herring or liver pâté, kidney bean or macaroni salad and, of course, a Wisconsin cheddar spread, such as Kaukauna Klub. Perfecting the method of cold-packed cheese, Kaukauna introduced its club cheese in 1933 in a blue-lettered, stoneware crock. Also known as pub cheese, the spreadable stuff became a staple in the state's taverns, hotels and restaurants.

Sometimes you can still find culinary theater, like a flambéed Bananas Foster prepared tableside at the River's Edge Supper Club in Somerset, or an open chaccoal grill taking center stage at the Rafters in Oak Creek. A full liquor lounge was and still is de rigueur, and it's easy to spend a half hour watching bartenders artistically concoct Sidecars, Manhattans, Rob Roys, Stingers, Grasshoppers or Pink Squirrels.

The Old Fashioned, thought by some to be the state's official drink, is created by a time-honored process in which granulated sugar is introduced to fruit zest and aromatic bitters with the aid of small, wooden pestle. Unless instructed otherwise, bartenders top-off the mixture with brandy and branch water and garnish with an orange slice and maraschino cherry. Bookend cocktails most often frame the dining experience, and a perfect pair (given our fondness for distilled wine) might be a brandy Old Fashioned apéritif and an après-dinner Brandy Alexander.

 

Under the Influence

As it is with our sporting events and hunting seasons, for better or for worse alcohol plays a role in the supper club tradition. In 2008, the New York Times took note of Wisconsin "drinking culture" after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel produced a five-part series called, "Wasted in Wisconsin." At about this time, Wisconsin's Gannett Company newspapers also issued a "State of Drinking" series that addressed alcohol abuse. Through comparative data, the report ranked Wisconsin as the state with the highest levels of per-capita drinking. The data used for the study included the number of taverns per capita and incorporated other statistics like self-admittance to activities like binge drinking or driving under the influence.

Rick Romell, author of the first of the five-part Journal Sentinel series, noted that Wisconsin's per capita consumption is high "not because we drink so much, but because so many of us drink. With relatively few Wisconsinites abstaining, our consumption per drinker is lower than about half the [other] states." Romell states his case clearly, giving readers "the bottom line: Drinkers in Wisconsin, on average, are more moderate than those in many states ... [Drinking] is, for better and worse, an element that helps define Wisconsin as Wisconsin, part of our identity."

This drinking culture was observed in the anthropological chronicle of 1960-1970s tavern life, Blue Collar Aristocrats: Life-Styles at a Working-Class Tavern, by E. E. LeMasters. A University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist, LeMasters ethnographic study sought to document the drinking and social habits of average Wisconsinites. At the "Oasis," LeMasters's research site, which was later revealed to be the Club Tavern in Middleton, the professor observed that it was customary to bring children, families and relatives to the tavern on weekends and holidays.

"A notion in Wisconsin that is not present in other states is that the bar is a family place. It's a very European way of looking at it," says the Historical Society's Draeger, who is researching a book about the state's tavern and brewing history. "The supper club is an extension of that same idea. There is a fine line, a continuum between taverns and supper clubs, in Wisconsin." The state's liquor laws are indicative of a more lenient perspective as well: later closing times, the permissibility of children in taverns with their parents or guardians and, unlike other states, a law allowing minors to consume alcohol under the supervision of a parent or guardian.

"Wisconsin people are honest when it comes to the drinking in the state's culture, and that goes hand-in-hand with taverns and supper clubs," says Rob Swearingen, president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin and owner of the Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander. Built in 1932 and named after its founders, Al and Genevieve Nelson, the Al-Gen Dinner Club is a log cabin-style building, the kind made popular during that era's commercial architecture boom and often copied in contemporary Upper Midwest commercial architecture. "Kids go out with their parents," says Swearingen, "and having their first drink in supervised settings like a supper club with their parents might not be a bad thing." The era surrounding Prohibition may shed light on the development of the supper club in Wisconsin, as well as our cultural mores regarding alcohol. While religious restrictions or prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol have been around for ages, on January 16, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution made it illegal to manufacture, sell or transport alcohol in America.

This was understandably difficult for Wisconsinites to swallow. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, brewing began in Wisconsin in the 1830s, and by the 1890s nearly every community had at least one operating brewery. Breweries were as much a part of Wisconsin communities as churches and schools. They supplied steady employment to workers, bought grain from local farmers who in turn often fed brewery by-products to their livestock, and they frequently sponsored community festivals, youth groups and sports teams. Brewing was intimately tied to Wisconsin's people, particularly its German immigrants, who brought their knowledge and skills with them to North America.

Whether it was our strong beer-brewing history or our progressive attitudes toward alcohol, Wisconsin and Prohibition did not mix. Wisconsin was one of the first states to enact a statewide repeal through the Severson Act of 1929, leaving Prohibition enforcement up to the Feds. The state was noted as a "Gibraltar of the wets—sort of a Utopia where everyone drinks their fill," by U.S. Treasury agent Frank Buckley in an assessment for the Bureau of Prohibition. For certain, Wisconsin had its share of rural roadhouses, city speak-easies, urban nightclubs and Canadian-Chicagoan connections that fueled the serving of illegal libations during Prohibition. Today, many supper clubs still claim roots in that history.

When the nation went dry after January 17, 1920, an invention called the "night-club," drawing on the European café tradition and with a pretense of entertainment, lit up cityscapes across America. In many big cities, cabaret and café nightlife included live shows, dancing and alcohol, but the trio was suspect. A committee formed in New York intended to "divorce both dancing and eating from drinking as it was dangerous, it appeared, to eat, drink and dance in the same place," according to Stanley Walker's 1933 book, The Night Club Era.

Susan Waggoner, in her Nightclub Nights: Art, Legend, and Style 1920-1960, notes how the American nightclub is a unique species. Born of hard times, it owes its existence to a distinct sequence of events. The name itself, "nightclub," was invented to circumvent Prohibition law. In theory, a nightclub was a private social club whose members gathered to eat, talk and imbibe soft drinks. In reality, knocking three times could get almost anyone in anywhere, and the drinks were almost  always of the hard variety. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the fiction was clung to with zeal. To reinforce the idea of legitimacy, entertainers were brought in. Of course, no one was fooled.

After the Roaring Twenties flickered out on Black Friday, the Great Depression sparked fear, uneasiness and, coupled with the oncoming Prohibition Repeal, a surprising resurgence of the supper club. The nightclub, with its emphasis on entertainment (and alcohol), was on the decline. According to Waggoner, out of 70 nightclubs in New York City, just a handful remained in the days before Prohibition was repealed. The Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution, the law that would repeal the Eighteenth Amendment, was introduced to Congress by Wisconsin Senator John J. Blaine and adopted on December 5, 1933.

Thus Prohibition was ended and food, usually given second-billing during those reckless years when the goal was to get the Real McCoy, once again became the focus of supper clubs and tavern-style establishments. "The scale on which 'food' and 'show' were paired in the years after the crash [of 1929] was something altogether new," writes Waggoner. It seemed the supper club was back for good.

 

A Place to Gather

In Wisconsin, the supper club may have survived and thrived after the Depression due to its long-established niche in community life. Public, religious and political groups hold meetings, rallies and events in supper club banquet rooms across the state, and families gather there for anniversaries, graduations, receptions and other commemorations. Considering that many supper clubs are in rural or remote locations, there is often no other communal gathering space, in lieu of a town hall or church basement—and certainly none that provide alcoholic beverages to enhance any festivity.

Unlike contemporary space-conscious chain restaurants, the gathering spaces common to older supper clubs offers a natural venue to foster camaraderie and convivality.

Mr. Ed's Tee Pee Supper ClubMr. Ed's Tee Pee Supper Club in Tomah is known as much as a center of community as it is for the largess of its owner, Ed Thompson, a two-time mayor of Tomah and the Libertarian Party's 2002 gubernatorial candidate (he's also the brother of former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson). The building the Tee Pee Supper Club now occupies was built in 1890 by Louie Knobloch, a well known farmer who also conducted an automobile service. The 40 by 100-foot livery stable was the place where people congregated and discussed the events of the day. After the turn of the century it was converted into the Tomah Theatre. Finally, in 1960, it became the home of the Tee Pee Supper Club.

"You have to have a deep sense of love for people and really care, if you are going to make it," says Mayor Thompson, who bought the Tee Pee after the previous owners went bankrupt in 1990. Thompson, however, couldn't keep the place afloat and, in 1992, sold the supper club on a contract-for-deed. The new owners didn't make a go of it, so he got the Tee Pee back in 1993. At the time, things weren't going well for Thompson, but he then struck upon the idea of a free Thanksgiving  dinner for those in need. "I remember that year I was living in a rundown house with my four dogs," he says, "and I thought, well, this could be the last Thanksgiving dinner I'd eat alone ... The Lions, the Rotary, everyone jumped in" and now the annual feast now serves nearly 1,400 people, including the delivery of meals to 600 shut-ins.

In 1997, the Tee Pee was raided by law-enforcement officials for providing illegal video poker to its patrons. Thompson refused to plead guilty and turned the matter into a crusade on behalf of small tavern owners trying to survive amidst the proliferation of large Indian casinos. In the end, the jury would not convict him. "They banded together; it wasn't about Ed Thompson and the Tee Pee—it was about Tomah and the Tee Pee," says Thompson.

The spirit of independent ownership can be credited to the survival of the supper club, says Thompson, but it requires a love of people, a passion for food and service, and a long-term commitment—with no thought of getting rich. "It's more than just making money. It's about community. People want to know who they are doing business with. I think the longevity of the supper club goes right back to the fact that Wisconsin has a real deep sense of neighborliness," he says. "The supper club is a gathering place where people can see their neighbors, families and friends and meet new ones—in that way, it's like a church."

New owners of old supper clubs, too, have found this sense of community. In 2007, Marilyn and John Sholten purchased the Tomorrow River Supper Club and Motel in Amherst from Ralph and Belvine Glodowski, who started the establishment in 1965 in a former roadhouse called Pep's Place, which was built in 1921.

Marilyn, who worked for the Glodowskis at the supper club from 1988 to 1992, says she and her husband have invested their capital in remodeling and creating a pet-friendly motel, and that maintenance in the living quarters and the supper club alike have needed attention. "On Christmas Day, two people were here helping us repaint the dining room. On New Year's Eve when we had a problem, a plumber came out with a Rotor Rooter. This spring we have had an electrician here. The bartender's husband came over and put in an entire new restroom—all at no charge. Where does this happen?" she muses. "It happens when you are where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to be doing. I've lived all over the country and never seen anything like this."

Marilyn Sholten grew up in an orphanage, and she fondly recalls vacations with her relatives in Wisconsin. Memories of those treasured moments prompted her to help out local families in need. "The supper club and the bowling alley [in Amherst] are both ... central for community life," she says. "A supper club combines comfort, family and community." Hoping to share these good feelings with those who most need them, Sholten, along with other Amherst business owners, created a series of Amherst-area family vacation packages for families in need. The packages include kayak or tube rides on the river, bowling parties, gift certificates and dinners or pizzas at several restaurants, including the Tomorrow River Supper Club. Working with the local middle school civics class, Sholten helps the students award the free vacation packages.

 

Legacy Carriers

Supper club names often reflect the proprietor's name, nickname or other family identifier and can be integral to the endeavor's success and longevity; towering signs and blazing neon often proclaim the history and lineage of a specific supper club.

"The supper club is where an owner's handprint is unique as a fingerprint," says Michael Radigan, owner of Ray Radigan's in Pleasant Prairie. Named after his father and founder Ray, who died in 1996, the supper club was established in 1933 and drew throngs of well-heeled patrons—both celebrity and syndicate—from Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and beyond. "This will always be my father's restaurant because of his imprint on this place," says Michael. Ray was a legendary figure who was unashamed about his past work with Prohibition bootleggers and speak-easy owners. Indeed, they helped Ray to earn the necessary capital to open his restaurant.

Ray's son, however, took a different route to gain industry expertise. "When I graduated with my MBA in hotel/restaurant industry from Michigan State University, it was known as the hospitality industry," recalls the sixty-one-year-old Michael. "Somewhere down the line it evolved into the food and beverage industry. That evolution of big business and multi-units left the hospitality industry without the unique owner hand-print. The supper club is still involved in the hospitality industry because we never left. You will still get the owner answering the phone, greeting you at the door or asking how your evening was before you leave."

The survival of our supper clubs can be often credited to legacy keepers of a family-run enterprise. In many cases, the capital investment is minimized as the supper club is passed on from one generation the next. Chris and Dave Marsicano grew up in the business. The Marsicano's run the Village Supper Club, which was built in the 1930s and overlooks Delavan Lake. The brothers took over the Village from their parents, Nick and Doris, who started the business in 1966. "I was a ten-year-old parking attendant on busy Friday nights," recalls Chris, 44, who later met his wife, Patti, when she applied at the Village for a bartending job. Dave also met his wife at the club, when she started working there.

"At age 13 I was washing dishes, and went up the line. It was just what we did and what we knew," says Chris. His sister, who is an art teacher, works part-time at the supper club during the summer. The family-community connection with the supper club is quite possibly the reason the Village has thrived, says Chris: "People remember coming here to cottages and resorts in the 1960s. They came up here with their families every year and now they are coming back with their grandkids. One nice thing about this business is that you make a lot of lasting friendships."

While there were once almost a dozen supper clubs in the Delevan Lake and Lake Geneva area, just a handful, including the Village, remain. This is likely due to the escalation of land values along the lake, a phenomenon occuring in many resort and vacation areas during the 21st century real estate boom. "Property around the lakes is so valuable that people can't afford to buy a tavern or restaurant, charge tavern and restaurant prices and pay that kind of mortgage," Chris says. "I really feel that's why you have seen a lot of mom-and-pop businesses disappear."

Lehman's Supper Club on Old Highway 53 in Rice Lake has been in the family since 1934. "It started out as a nightclub, and then my grandfather added food and sandwiches," recalls Butch Lehman, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Trudy. "Right after World War II, he and my parents turned it into more of a supper club, but the entertainment stayed. We had big bands like the Ink Spots playing here in the 1940s and the 1950s. "The entertainment tradition remains, says Lehman, but now it's primarily jazz and rock. One thing that has stayed the same is the homemade tradition: "Everything is made from scratch, and we dress, age, hang and hand-trim our meat. All of our desserts are made on the premises. We keep it as authentic as possible coming out of the kitchen."

Sign for Lehman's Supper Club. Photo by Brenda K. Bredahl

Lehman's also fulfills a role in the community as a meeting place for both year-round residents and seasonal visitors. "It's a culture onto itself," says Lehman. "What is amazing to me is that you will see people who will come in and then run into some folks and, all of a sudden, they sit and have the camaraderie of a gathering place. Supper clubs are like airlines, in that they are 'legacy carriers.' It's amazing that third generation children really like coming here; we treat them special and they enjoy that. At some restaurants in larger cities, they might not be too happy to see kids."

Lehman agrees that the family-community legacy and spirit of independent ownership is a strong reason why supper clubs survive in Wisconsin. "A lot of people have prematurely predicted the demise of the supper club. "When it's in a family, and the generations who still run it, you have instilled a work ethic and you put in a lot of time and effort. Sometimes people think it is a lot greener from the outside. It can fail because of that. It takes a special person in the business today; it's really a twenty-four-seven commitment, like farming."

Perhaps that's one reason why supper clubs, like agriculture and the dairy industry, remain strong in Wisconsin. But the commitment is consuming and the challenge intense. "On your days off you think about it constantly," recalls Ed Lukaszewicz, who recently retired from a career in law enforcement. He and his wife, Kathy, ran the Harper Lake Resort Supper Club near Rib Lake from 1978 to 1985. "On your days off, you are going out and getting restaurant-quality supplies because trucks didn't want to come up for such a small order," says Lukaszewicz, who notes that, especially once he and his wife started a family, the lifestyle of owning a supper club was extremely difficult. "Even when we were successful, it was growing old," he says, recalling "that there was a lot of prep work, and then, after the last customer leaves, an hour of cleanup to get ready to start the cleaning in the morning. Some people might think you will become big and let others run the business, but when you have everything invested you have to do everything to protect your investment. What we do miss is that we were on a lake with a million dollar view, and we were more in touch with the seasons and nature. Plus, we became a part of our customers' lives."

Michael Radigan, whose father's restaurant has served as a community gathering place for 75 years, agrees that the one thing that won't go out of style in Wisconsin is the pursuit of the simple life. "In Wisconsin, we treasure a simpler life," he says, "and the supper club has survived, and I think it is being reinvented, [because of this]."

 

Repast Rebirth

While the tradition may be endangered, the supper club shows few signs of extinction in Wisconsin. Indeed, there is a new generation of supper club owners and diners alike that are eager to keep the flame alight. When Kim Gruetzmacher, a Wisconsin native who owns three downtown Minneapolis restaurants, found out that Jake's Supper Club on Tainter Lake near Menomonie was closed and up for sale, he and his son Peter rushed to check it out.

Both Gruetzmacher and his son graduated from UW-Stout's restaurant program, and both knew well the nearby Jake's Supper Club. "I was born in Madison and grew up in Grafton, so supper clubs were a way of life," he says. After Jake's closed, Gruetzmacher read an article in the Eau Claire Leader Telegram, which discussed the community's love and support for the supper club. "That was the driving force to make [the purchase] a reality," he says. "The supper club has been there for sixty years, and it's been known as Jake's for thirty years. It would be foolish to change the name of this landmark. I think, in the first few weeks since we opened, we heard five-hundred times that people are grateful [to us] for keeping Jake's open."

In Madison, nouveau supper clubs like the Old Fashioned and the Tornado Steak House are finding success by combining Wisconsin supper club and tavern flavors. While Kavanaugh's Esquire Club, Smokey's Club, Toby's Supper Club, the Avenue Bar, and other long-time city establishments have authentic supper club sensibilities, the new purveyors are recreating the genre with a focus on locally sourced food.

"We wanted to recapture the soul of Wisconsin," says Tami Lax, a partner in the Old Fashioned, a 2005 addition to the statewide supper club ranks. "I remember a place like this as a kid, and it's important to hold on to that tradition." Lax's Old Fashioned draws on local roots by sourcing from Wisconsin-based producers and specialty purveyors whenever possible. "We do it the old-fashioned way and purchase the best products ... from Sheboygan bratwurst to cheese and beer from around the state.

According to Lax, she and partner Marcia O'Halloran came up with the idea for the Old Fashioned as a way to preserve the distinct, regional take on classic Wisconsin supper club fare. "I grew up when Mom or Grandma made dinner every night, so going out to the local supper club was a big deal," says Lax. "Everyone knew one another, and it really brought people together."

Reflecting on the success of her four-year-old supper club, Lax says that when she walks into the bar or dining room of the Old Fashioned, she knows "about one-quarter of the people. And everyone is getting to know one another, too. In these times our lives have sped up and ... this is an opportunity to slow down and get to know one another again—just like what I remember growing up."

Much like Lax's relationship with the Old Fashioned, the Red Stag Supper Club in Minneapolis calls forth the memories of restaurateur Kim Bartmann, who grew up in northern Wisconsin. Even the name is reminiscent of one of her family's favorite supper clubs: The White Stag Inn, in Sugar Camp, just north of Rhinelander, which is still open today.

Opened November 2007, the Red Stag Supper Club is the first LEED-certified restaurant of its type in Minnesota and one of less than twenty in the nation. It subscribes to a supper club-inspired menu and serves as much locally sourced and organic meat, fish and produce as possible. "We consciously tried to recreate the supper club feel," says Bartmann. "The space—an old warehouse—sort of inspired that in me because of all the Douglas fir that was in it." Red carpet, dark-paneled walls and incandescent lighting help to add an old-school atmosphere, as does the regular live entertainment. "I get e-mails from people from Wisconsin who live here now," says Bartmann, "and they say it is reminiscent of something from their youth and much like the places they go to when they go home."

As a tradition ensconced in the state's culture, the experience of a supper club rekindles memories associated with food, family and community for both residents and visitors alike. "There is a comfort of the community, a [soothing] predictability of experience and a timelessness in the experience of a supper club. Part social hall, they are one of the few places that is a public space in the rural areas of the state," says the Historical Society's Draeger. "It's part of our personal heritage. And whenever people age they become more attached to the things that rooted them to their childhood. It's a temporal thing—people becoming nostalgic about supper clubs—and supper clubs are rooted in place in a world in which many people may feel rootless."

Indeed, for Wisconsinites, home is where the supper club is.

 

Contributors

Brenda K. Bredahl holds an MA from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities and a BS from UW–River Falls. Her freelance articles and photographs have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Milwaukee Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and online at travelwisconsin.com.

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